Country Gridlock

Beyond wishing for some science fictional device by which to occupy two places at the same time, St. Louis country music fans should start popping uppers pronto to weather an embarrassment of riches this Thursday and Friday, November 6 and 7, when almost a dozen acts of local, regional, and national standing in or near that genre will grace four venues here. Country gridlock, pure and simple, the timetable for those two days doesn’t perforce corroborate Mark Twain’s characterization of God as a “malign thug,” but it certainly suggests that He, She, or It may have an unbecomingly devilish sense of humor.

More specifically, on Thursday, Bobby Bare, Jr., with Kip Loui and the Town Criers will play Off Broadway, while Jerry Jeff Walker takes the stage at the Sheldon. Then, on Friday, fully six acts will perform:

  • Thad Cockrell at Frederick’s Music Lounge.
  • Jerry Douglas at the Sheldon.
  • The Jayhawks with the Sadies at Mississippi Nights.
  • The Rockhouse Ramblers with Bob Reuter and Palookaville at Off Broadway.

Shades of Twangfest 7½! For details on the timing and admission price of each performance, interested readers should phone a particular venue or, given that each venue maintains a Web site, visit it virtually for information. Other details on the nine acts follow:

Bobby Bare, Jr., crafted one of last year’s most memorable releases, Young Criminals’ Starvation League, an 11-track stunner from Chicago’s famed Bloodshot Records. Roughly two weeks ago, in hopes of enticing the miserly to sample Bare’s wares, Bloodshot followed that disc with OK—I’m Sorry…, an EP featuring live and other variant recordings of League material as well as new work. Idiosyncratic as a vocalist, imposing as a songwriter, the Nashville resident may remind listeners less of his famed father than of iconic iconoclasts like Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello—he’s almost frighteningly good. Based on songs like “Flat Chested Girl From Maynardville,” “The Monk at the Disco,” and “The Ending” (a co-write with Tony Crow), his appearance Thursday at Off Broadway should rock the house.

[Thad] Cockrell’s flexible tenor…resides in a space many aspiring singers would envy: halfway between the tones of Dwight Yoakam and Ryan Adams, and able to venture in both directions,” observed Barry Mazor in an eight-page profile of the burly North Carolinian in the September-October No Depression. Late in September, Yep Roc Records released Cockrell’s Warmth & Beauty, a beguilingly plaintive 12-track collection that opens with the swingy “I’d Rather Have You,” proceeds to the nicely understated title cut, and peaks (perhaps) with the sixth song, “She Ain’t No You.” In the Mazor profile and in his music alike, Cockrell sounds like the newest star pupil in the old school of country music, and his visit to Frederick’s Friday should prove memorable.

In a bluegrass adaptation of Camelot, where Excalibur has become a Dobro, portraying King Arthur, inarguably, would be Jerry Douglas. No one, absolutely no one, can top him on the brainchild of the brothers Dopyera. Now touring with his own band in support of Lookout for Hope, a 2002 release from Sugar Hill Records, the 47-year-old Columbus, Ohio, native has been playing the resonator guitar since the age of eight, performing with everyone from Garth Brooks (try not to hold that against Douglas, though) to Emmylou Harris. Lately, of course, he’s also formed one-fifth of a little-known act called Alison Krauss + Union Station. Douglas’s concert Friday at the Sheldon should serve as one more example (as though such were needed) of that regal venue’s dedication to showcasing the crème de la crème of country and related genres.

God alone knows why the Jayhawks call themselves that: the band formed in Minneapolis in 1985, and the common noun jayhawk mostly occurs in contexts involving Kansas and Civil War border states (among which, it almost goes without saying, Minnesota didn’t number). Such nominal nominal considerations to the contrary notwithstanding, the band has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the pioneers of alt-country (“whatever that is”), releasing such recordings as Blue Earth (1989/2003) and Hollywood Town Hall (1992). Visiting Mississippi Nights Friday will be the band’s latest lineup—keyboardist Karen Grotberg, guitarists Kraig Johnson and Gary Louris, drummer Tim O’Reagan, and bassist Marc Perlman—and they should be performing material from Rainy Day Music, their most recent CD, issued by Universal earlier this year.

“This band amazes me, each member a champ on their own,” esteemed St. Louis singer-songwriter Bob Reuter noted regarding his Palookaville, which will be recording next month, “but I really believe that it’s the bass playing of Jenna Bauer that’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. Jenna, a classically trained musician, plays her upright acoustic bass with a bow, and that, mixed with gutbucket, ‘of the earth’–type songs, adds something special to the whole mix, whether we’re going for a string quartet sort of thing or full-out punk rock.” Otherwise, the quintet comprises Robin Allen on acoustic lead guitar, Kevin Buckley on fiddle, Mike Enderle on drums, and, of course, Reuter on vocals and acoustic guitar. With luck, at their Off Broadway gig Friday, they’ll perform material from Hand of Fate, the fine limited-edition EP issued at Twangfest 7 in June.

Both on this Web site and in the print edition of Playback St. Louis, I’ve repeatedly praised the Rockhouse Ramblers, the St. Louis quintet consisting of bassist Dade Farrar, drummer Danny Kathriner, lead guitarists John Horton and Gary Hunt, and rhythm guitarist Kip Loui. I’ve gushed about the skills of Farrar, Hunt, and Loui as songwriters and vocalists on the band’s two CDs from Hayden’s Ferry Records, Bar Time (2000) and Torch This Town (2002), which boast remarkably newfangled old-time tunes like Loui’s “Say What You Mean,” Hunt’s “Learning How to Live With the Blues,” and Farrar’s “Between Home and the Honky Tonk.” I’ve constantly advised readers to buy those CDs and attend the Rockhouse Ramblers’ shows. Well, guess what: I still do. Listeners seeking the best that local country music can provide should seek nowhere but Off Broadway this Friday.

In a review of the Sadies Stories Often Told (Yep Roc Records, 2002) which appeared in the February Playback St. Louis and which should be archived elsewhere on this Web site—yo, Jim, HTMLize a link hereabouts, babe!—I noted that preeminent alt-country songbird Neko Case holds that band in the highest regard…and who am I to disagree with the redoubtable Ms. C, who’s every bit as discerning as she is alluring? In that Toronto quartet, Mike Belitsky plays the drums, Sean Dean plays the bass, and the brothers Good, Dallas and Travis, sing and play the guitar. Often compared to the Band, the Sadies themselves have characterized their music as “space cowboy,” and it can indeed sound variously psychedelic and southwestern, as their Mississippi Nights audience this Friday should learn with pleasure.

Regarding his new pop/rock combo, Kip Loui obligingly e-mailed the Sports Desk: “The Town Criers feature long-time Belle Starr drummer Bill Yaeger, a terrific and veteran lead guitarist by the name of Brad Springmeyer, and two of the guys from the Civil Tones ([bassist] Dave Hilditch and [keyboardist] John Holt).… The Town Criers have more of a blues influence than I’ve previously delved into, which is not to say that it’s a blues band. And I’m working with a keyboard player for the first time, which has been fun and different and kind of a challenge. Lots of newly written songs, and a few carryovers from Belle Starr [his former pop-oriented band].” With typically self-deprecating humor, Loui, who himself will provide vocals and rhythm guitar at Off Broadway Thursday, added, “Our goal that night will be to not embarrass ourselves in front of Bobby Bare, Jr.”

The name Jerry Jeff Walker, in all likelihood, will ring no bells with the average listener, especially if said listener hasn’t aged and/or matured—not necessarily the same thing—enough to recognize that popular music exists beyond whoever’s posing en déshabillé on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone. It should, though. Why? Simple: Walker penned a pop standard, a ditty made famous in the early ’70s by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: “Mr. Bojangles.” A fixture on the Austin music scene, Walker recently published his autobiography, Gypsy Songman, and he’s currently touring solo in support of the 14-track Jerry Jeff Jazz (Tried & True Music). “Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants”—his appearance Thursday at the Sheldon should give fans a fine opportunity to celebrate one of “outlaw” country’s gray eminences.

Jerry Jeff Walker at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Thursday

Bobby Bare, Jr. and the Town Criers at Off Broadway, Thursday

The Jayhawks and the Sadies at Mississippi Nights, Friday

Thad Cockrell at Frederick’s Music Lounge, Friday

Jerry Douglas at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Friday

The Rockhouse Ramlbers and Palookaville at Off Broadway, Friday

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